Orford Ness: A Guide to Memory Mapping

Tracy Lee-Newman delves into a psychogeographic investigation of place whilst on a trip to the wild Ness.

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January 2018, and let’s start with layers. Socks, vests, t-shirts, jumpers, fleeces, raincoats, gloves and hats. Orford Ness is what’s known as a ‘storm beach’, and none of us are taking any chances.

Curving round the Suffolk coast, the Ness is the site of our class’s first field trip; a promontory of shingle, marsh and mud approximately ten miles long, accessible only by ferry. Now owned by the National Trust and recognised as an internationally important area for nature conservation, for most of the 20th century it was a place the public were excluded from because of the secret research undertaken on site by the military; research conducted in the now abandoned buildings we are taken to explore.

Will Self, Robert MacFarlane, the late W. G. Sebald, they have all been tempted to examine what Self calls “one of England’s strangest wastelands”. No wonder, then, that our tutor, Dr James Canton, believes this place will help us hone our psychogeographic skills by heightening our awareness of the different strands of natural and man-made history such places are composed of. Good students all, we pick apart the owl pellets we find in shelters, listen to the song the wind sings through a stairway’s railings, ask unanswerable questions about Cobra Mist – the myth-enshrouded radar project based here until 1973. Inspired by MacFarlane’s urgings that we note the “textual runoff” to be found most everywhere, we photograph the signs, the notices that warn of unexploded ordnance, the peeling DANGER sticker on a decommissioned atom bomb.

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Led by David, our National Trust guide, we climb atop the Bomb Ballistics building and, with his help, unfurl the horizontal. Undulating shingle ridges furred with vegetation. Aldeburgh and the Sizewell nuclear power station in the distance. The battleship grey of the North Sea colliding with cloud-riven sky. The wind-beaten pewter of the rivers Ore and Alde.

But if you drop your gaze, or even close your eyes, you’ll notice that the vertical unfolds. This place too, has layers. Biplanes from the First World War test ghost-bombs on the spit. The spirits of the German Prisoners of War camp and the Chinese labourers employed to build a wall still linger. Pigeons, owls and swallows may have colonised the bunkers, and the hares the vegetation, but this place is so uncanny that it doesn’t feel too fanciful to see them swerving to avoid the bomb ballistics experts and the draughtsmen bussed in from surrounding towns. David tells us that the longshore drift has rolled flint down the east coast for hundreds of years, but the future is uncertain.  This might look like a largely dead and static landscape, but look again; look deeper. The roof of the pagoda might fall in tomorrow. Erosion may once again turn to accretion. One day, that lighthouse will join its predecessors at the bottom of the sea.

Back home. I shuck off my raincoat, my wellies, then pick my owl pellet to pieces. A few tiny bones. Tufts of fur. And, more than likely, scores of things I’d need a microscope to see.

Memory mapping: it’s all about layers.

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Tracy Lee-Newman is currently working towards an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Essex. To date, her short stories and flash fiction have been published by Slingink, Secret Attic, Centum Press, Pure Slush and Bath Flash Fiction, and she has a forthcoming piece in Flash Fiction International. Always interested in the effects of places on people, she worked until recently leading Forest School sessions with children, and remains committed to helping those with special needs flourish in both natural and built environments. She tweets @writeatme.

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One Response to Orford Ness: A Guide to Memory Mapping

  1. Billy Tollemache says:

    Yes, you sum it up beautifully. That was an astounding trip. Loved the hares – kept wondering whether they were the descendents of the ones Sebald wrote about. As you say, it’s all about accretion, the wildlife, perhaps, an example of biological, genetic layering.

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